You know how graduate students are always complaining that their stipends are small compared to the cost of living? It seems that some graduate students find ways to supplement that income … ways that aren’t always legal. For example, from this article in the September 8, 2008 issue of Chemical & Engineering News :
Jason D. West, a third-year chemistry graduate student at the University of California, Merced, was arraigned last month on charges of conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine, manufacturing methamphetamine, and possessing stolen property. West allegedly stole approximately $10,000 worth of equipment and chemicals from the university to make the illegal drug.
West, 36, pleaded not guilty to the charges and as of press time was in jail on $1 million bail. Police have found materials traced to West at three different meth labs and in one vehicle, says Tom MacKenzie of the Merced County Sheriff’s Department.
The police ended up arresting West following an investigation by UC-Merced campus police of the whereabouts of a vacuum pump that went missing from West’s graduate lab. Graduate students take note: your advisor will miss that expensive piece of lab equipment.
It is alleged that West was using the vacuum pump plus other equipment and chemicals stolen from the lab to synthesize as much as 9 kg of methamphetamine. At a street price of $750 per 3.5 g, that could be a gross of $1,928,571 and change for the drug makers, dependent on the actual yields achieved. I do not know what the net profit would be, but stealing the starting materials and equipment is one way to keep your overhead down.
Interestingly, it is not obvious who precisely is the victim of this theft:
The equipment and chemicals West allegedly stole were originally purchased with university start-up funds rather than federal grant money, says Maria Pallavicini, dean of UC Merced’s School of Natural Sciences.
Stealing from the feds might well have different legal consequences than stealing from the State of California or a private source of funding. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the court proceedings.
The article also mentions that West allegedly departed from the recent strategy of using pseudoephedrine as the starting material in his meth synthesis, instead starting with phenyl-2-propanone (P2P). It’s not clear from the article whether this was an easier material to steal from the lab or simply a less obvious meth starting material.
Historically, meth cookers using the P2P method typically produced relatively impure methamphetamine, but MacKenzie [of the Merced County Sheriff's Department] says West was able to produce more than 95% pure drug, a quality similar to that prepared from pseudoephedrine. P2P is regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) under the Controlled Substances Act, along with pseudoephedrine and other chemicals commonly used to make methamphetamine and other illegal drugs.
Although the P2P meth synthesis is more involved (requiring reduction of the P2P with methylamine before hydrogenation to methamphetamine), it yields a racemic mixture of methamphetamine molecules rather than the enantiomerically pure methamphetamine obtained from pseudoephedrine. That may well impact the activity of the drug, although I am not the right blogger to ask. (DrugMonkey or Abel might know.)
The ethical issues from the grad student’s point of view here are pretty clear cut. Stealing from your graduate lab to manufacture and distribute illegal drugs is bad. Even if you have some principled drug-legalization stand, the stealing is a non-starter. Moreover, even if no federal funds paid for any part of what you stole, at a school in the UC system chances are good that some money from California taxpayers was part of the start-up funds that bough the equipment and chemicals involved. This makes your extracurricular chemistry an example of the conversion of public funds to private profit — another ethical no-no. (We will set aside, for the moment, the possibly analogous cases of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.)
I think the trickier ethical landscape in a case like this involves the university. You see, West had something of a history:
Before starting graduate studies at UC Merced in 2005, West was convicted in 2001 of making methamphetamine in his home, using materials stolen from Giumarra Vineyards, his employer at the time, says Susan Barton, a deputy district attorney for Kern County, Calif. West was sentenced to three years in prison but was found eligible to be treated for narcotic addiction at the California Rehabilitation Center, which is run by the Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation. West was discharged from the addiction program in 2004.
Did the UC-Merced chemistry department have an ethical obligation to keep an eye on West, in light of his history of freelance chemical synthesis? It’s quite likely that they didn’t even know about that history, given that most schools don’t conduct criminal background checks of their graduate students.
Do we want to add criminal background checks to the standard graduate admissions package?
The UT Austin chemistry department does criminal background checks of its graduate students:
“The university mandated them for staff and faculty, and we decided to extend it to grad student employees,” says John Baxendale, administrative manager for UT Austin’s chemistry department. “We basically began doing them just because we thought it was a good practice.”
The results of the checks, which cost the department $5.00 each, are not used as a factor in admissions but could prevent a student from being appointed to a teaching or research assistant position, Baxendale adds.
I don’t know if this means that a record of manufacturing meth, for example, would rule out a grad student’s working in some research labs but not others, or if it would rule out that student’s participating in research in any lab in the department. Obviously, without a place in a research lab, doing the research necessary to write a dissertation is pretty hard.
And without a research position and the accompanying stipend, the need to make money on the side becomes much more pressing.
There’s a deeper question here about whether academic departments (and society at large) can or should assume that individuals can be rehabilitated. Not everyone who has a criminal record is going to reoffend. Not everyone with a history of drug use will continue to use.
The interests of departments and of their students could be at odds here:
Pallavicini adds that the university walks a fine line between trusting students to carry out their research and protecting both individuals and the university. “One has to have a balance between trust and academic freedom and making sure individuals don’t abuse those privileges,” she says.
Total surveillance in the lab doesn’t sound like it would make the graduate school experience any more joyful, but at the same time universities do not want to be found to be negligent with respect to protecting research equipment and materials for their intended uses (either in a court of law or in the court of public opinion).
If there’s a simple way to address this kind of situation without undermining the trust that should exist between graduate student and advisor, I would love to hear it.
 Jyllian Kemsley, “Student Suspected of Making Meth,” Chemical & Engineering News (September 8, 2008) Vol. 86, No. 36, 39-40.